On Tony Scott’s sixty-eighth birthday, we celebrate his most soaring piece of work: Top Gun. The volleyball scene sums up Scott’s cinematic vision and serves as its foundation for the future. Goose (Anthony Edwards) and shirtless-white-wash-jean-wearing Maverick (Tom Cruise) play a doubles grudge match against Iceman (Val Kilmer) and his partner in what seems to be a tip of the iceberg ready-for-the-denouement-type scene. In actuality, it simply serves as a more intimate and less detached surrogate for a possibly deleted one-too-many flight scenes. Maverick flexes his shit and high fives with a vigor that I assume is only matched by a cow-killing airgun. Goose begs him to stay on for a rubberneck match, but Cruise has bigger fish to fry—namely, Kelly McGillis as his tender yet tough instructor and love interest. Maverick slaps on his leather jacket, then mounts his cruiser and rides off with a vengeance into the sunset. Everything that happens in Top Gun happens in these few moments: trifles are disguised as virtuous and important endeavors— a volleyball match and, subsequently, Maverick’s pursuit of his instructor, play equal to the life and death potential of air-battle with the Soviets that his Top Gun team only feigns to embrace in their training.
It’s a fallicy of the 80s’ film that any challenge (whether it be making a BLT sandwich or battling a Kung-Fu master) a leading man faces is more important than the dignity of his coactors. For example, Maverick’s petulant battle with Iceman to be the best jet-pilot of his class takes precedence over Maverick’s giant character flaw—a clear lack of humility—and Kelly McGillis’ existence as a woman. It’s one thing to revolve a film around a main character; it’s another to revolve a film around a main character’s ego and not exploit that ego as a means to cinematic substance. Scott’s films are generally all takeoff and no landing.
That being said, Top Gun is fun to watch because it reminds us that film at its best is an escape from reality and, at its worst, a reflection of the worst traits of society at a given time (which make for plenty of laughs and/or grimaces). Seeing Val Kilmer and Tom Cruise bump heads is the real highlight of the film. Kilmer uses his singular childlike smarm (best displayed in Real Genius) to dent Maverick’s seemingly inpenetrable confidence. When Iceman tells Maverick, “You’re everyone’s problem . . . I don’t like you because you’re dangerous,” Maverick shoots back, “That’s right! Icemannn, I am dangerous.” This was the heyday of the bad boy, and nobody played it better than Cruise (save Patrick Swayze in Road House), but Kilmer always understood the emptiness of the prototype. Iceman is the only character in the film who isn’t impressed with Maverick and therefore is the only important or round character.
Even Goose (a man named GOOSE!) has more to offer than Maverick; at least Goose has a “family to think about.” Cruise just can’t play a tortured hero; it’s not in his DNA. He is a hero because he believes absolutely in his vision, and anyone who invests in that vision will see that obstinacy as prophetic. Any skeptic, however, will see it as meta-selfishness—a cheap vehicle for movie stardom. Cruise was definitely at war with something in Top Gun; if only it was his ego.